Opened in 2000 and ushering in both a new century and a new era of professional sports in Memphis, TN, AutoZone Park is, simply put, one of the finest minor league baseball stadiums in America. From its neo-traditional design (based on iconic Camden Yards) to the Bluff out in left field, everything about AutoZone Park is designed to provide a unique, thoroughly enjoyable baseball experience.
Anyone living in Memphis at the time the stadium was being erected remembers some of the nightmares that the builders had to endure: the huge price tag ($80.5 million, by far the highest in minor league stadium history) which led to heavy resistance from the citizens of Memphis and Shelby County; the drawn out, acrimonious and very public arguments over where to locate the park; and construction delays, including the cavernous hole in the ground that flooded during the site preparation phase and led to derision throughout the region.
But my, oh my, was the end result worth the tribulations the builders (project manager Beers-Inman) and Memphis-area fans had to endure!
Ground broke on January 16, 1998, and the stadium was opened on April 1, 2000, one year later than original plans. But it was a smashing success for its Memphis-based designers, Looney Ricks Kiss Architects, with the assist to consultants from Kansas City's Populous (or HOK Sport, as it was known at the time, who designed Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992). By any measure, AutoZone Park is a favorite, unanimously praised for beauty, comfort and functionality. The pinnacle of the praise came in 2009 when the track was named by esteemed Baseball America as the top stadium in the minors, with one minor league official calling it "the Taj Mahal of minor league baseball."
No expense was spared in the erection of AutoZone Park. There were far too many amenities for us to tour on just one preview, so subsequent updates will examine more of the intricacies of the stadium. But the subterranean regions of the stadium""once dubbed as "the ugly hole in the ground" by skeptical Memphians as the project lagged far behind schedule""include three tunnels, batting cages and some of the most sprawling clubhouses in the minors.
The project was managed by Beers-Inman in a joint venture between Beers Construction Co. and Inman Construction Co. Financing was primarily through the issuance of tax-exempt public bonds, totally $72 million and saddling the non-profit Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation with a yearly bond payment of nearly $5 million, roughly 10 times what the normal minor league organization has to pay. With this unique ownership model in place, the Redbirds join the Green Bay Packers as the only professional sports franchises to be classified as non-profit community foundations.
Memphis-based AutoZone purchased naming rights for $4.3 million over 25 years, or $188,000 per annum including interest.
The listed capacity at the stadium is 14,320. There are exactly 12,500 seats in the building, and the TruGreen Bluff in leftfield (more on that in a minute) can accommodate about 1,820. But the Delta Dental Picnic Pavilion in rightfield can hold up to 500 more, and there are second-level open-air party decks which can squeeze in a total of 350 and there are 48 club suites on two levels, so the venue could actually hold some 16,000 people safely or more for concerts or special events. There are even three party balconies which do not have a view of the stadium but are beautiful spots to have special company or family outings.
The only difference between AutoZone Park and a major league venue is the amount of seating. Looney Ricks Kiss and Populous (HOK) settled on the elegant, open concourse design, allowing fans the luxury of never missing the game, even when going for concessions or a bathroom break. And the outfield is dominated by one of the largest scoreboards in all minor league baseball, towering to 127' above the field and measuring 23' wide by 20' tall. The video board can produce a staggering 16.2 million colors.
Out in leftfield is one of the most distinctive features in all of baseball: the TruGreen Bluff. No chairs allowed. It's a lush hillside area designed to provide a unique spectator view of the game. People on a date can share a blanket. Kids can get discarded boxes (gleefully provided by the Redbirds, if the youngsters happen to forget their own) and slide down any slope they find. And tickets for the Bluff are sold at a discounted price. It's a tradition like no other in professional sports, and a fantastic way to take in a baseball game in Memphis, TN. Just bring an umbrella, in case it rains!
By the numbers, AutoZone Park contains 17,586 cubic yards of concrete; 227 miles of electrical wiring; 6,800,000 pounds of structural steel in the infrastructure; and 125,738 square feet of brick wall around the park, including 380,000 specially made bricks which give the stadium its unique appearance. 350 tons of clay and 5,000 tons of sand were used putting together the playing surface, and the outfield required 100,000 square feet of sod. The drainage system removes one inch of water per hour and still be playable.
The park, like many others in the Pacific Coast League, is a bandbox. The dimensions are 319 to left, 400 to straight away center, 322 to right, and just 360 to the power alleys.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
This is Memphis, where barbecue and soul food reign supreme. Which makes the fact that a patron cannot get a simple pulled-pork sandwich or a couple bones of ribs that much more mystifying, and aggravating. AZP is the only ballpark in America where the hot dog isn't the number one selling item: the barbecue nacho is. My son had the treat (which literally left him licking his fingers), a huge conglomeration of nacho chips, cheese, peppers, and of course, 'cue. With three convenient locations, world-famous Rendevous Barbecue dishes out the signature dish that keeps 'em coming back for more.
There are also a plethora of loaded baked potato and other vegetarian dishes, pizza by the slice, sausage sandwiches choked in various onions and peppers, grilled chicken and chicken tenders, soft serve ice cream with a slew of toppings, even deep-fried catfish with hush puppies. But no pulled pork sandwiches or ribs. I love the staggering variety of meals but I can't give it a five with such glaring omissions. Prices are decent, somewhere around average for ballpark fare. Bottled water costs $3.50, soft drinks $4, beers $7. Ice cold Pabst draft is sold for $5 on a patio off the main concourse. Some vendors sell a $5 combo including an entree and a Coke, and there is a $1 hot dog special at various locations throughout the concession area.
There was a decided lack of engagement by the fans during the game, which is somewhat typical at parks and stadiums around the world. They pay attention when there's a rally going on, or during one of the many on-field gimmicks, such as condiment races, giveaways, or the classic seventh inning stretch. But there are almost too many distractions here. There's the TruGreen Bluff and the Delta Dental Picnic Pavilion, where it's easy to forget the game while you're enjoying the delicious food. For youngsters, there's the P.D. Parrot's Playhouse Perch, where children can run through a jungle gym, play games on a miniature ball field or hang out in their very own picnic area. And finally, there's the Boardwalk, where fans can traverse a rock-climbing tower, play typical county fair games, and even ride a couple of small rides. It makes for a great family experience, but for a baseball purist, it's a bit much to take in.
What can I say except that AZP is the anchor of the most beautiful, vibrant part of downtown Memphis? Luxury apartments overlook the outfield. The Redbirds' official hotel, the Double Tree, is just across Union to the South. Just beside the Double Tree is the oldest TGI Friday's in Memphis. Across Third Street to the West from those establishments is "the South's Grand Hotel," the Peabody.
Walk across Union and there's a Holiday Inn Express and the Benchmark Hotel. So anyone coming into town for a game has plenty of lodging choices. And there are plenty of entertainment or food options within a stone's throw of the stadium. The food choices are amazingly diverse. There's a Thai sushi bar (Bangkok Alley, 121 Union), a Mexican restaurant (Rio Loco Authentic Mexican Restaurant, 117 Union), several bar & grills, and a Texas de Brazil (150 Peabody Place). Two blocks away are the FedEx Forum, Gibson Guitar Factory, and world-famous Beale Street. Plenty to do, and plenty to eat. What's not to love?
The Memphis fans did a credible job of rooting their team on when I was in attendance for a game against their long-time nemesis, the Nashville Sounds. As a baseball follower for over 30 years, I had to wonder if some of them truly realize how old and how heated this rivalry used to be. There was a lack of passion (or dare I say hatred) that took something away from the experience for me. It was still a good environment, to be certain, but lacked a certain acrimony and sense of baseball history that should be inherent to a rivalry of this vintage.
Downtown Memphis is notorious for its lack of parking. That puts prices at a premium. However, you can find parking around AZP for as little as $5 on game day. There are plenty of parking lots and garages within easy walking distance. Directly across the street from the stadium is the First Tennessee Garage, which charges a daily maximum of $10, so there is absolutely no reason to pay more than that, qualifying parking to see the Redbirds as a relative bargain.
There are also plentiful shuttle services as well as the downtown trolley line to consider. One could park in the Mid-town medical center area for free, get dropped off on the North end of the stadium, and walk to the ticket booth in under five minutes for only the cost of the trolley ride: $1.50 for a two-ride pass or $3.25 for an all-day pass. That beats trying to navigate traffic to the event; if you're experienced enough like I am, and willing to walk a little bit, it's a breeze. If you're from out of town and don't know which streets are one-way or how close you are to the venue from given locations, it'll be tough battling the gridlock.
Some of the same issues that take away from the overall baseball experience for me at AZP return as huge pluses when considering the return for your dollar. With everything connected by the expansive open concourse, a park goer is enticed to walk around and explore, with a bird's eye view of the game never compromised.
The Boardwalk is the equivalent of a small county fair all year long. The rock-climbing challenge was calling my name; I'll have to conquer it the next time I'm at the stadium. There's one game where you test your throwing arm (Knuckleball Knockdown) and another where you test your ability to hit a baseball (The Batter's Box). Kid's should enjoy Rockey's Hooper, a ride that lifts you up in the air about 15' and then drops you swiftly and sometimes rocks up and down in rapid succession. Back to the adults, there is a state-of-the-art batting cage, just like the ones that the pros use.
AutoZone Park is, quite simply, the cleanest public venue I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. I never once saw trash on the ground in the expansive open concourse. Paper doesn't swirl around the outfield. Even the bathrooms stay remarkably clean and tidy. (Speaking of bathrooms, the men's facilities are impressive. Each one on the concourse level has 16 unrinals [four child-sized], 8 stalls [two handicap accessible], three wash bays, five oversized mirrors and two baby changing stations.) Everyone from the general manager on down to the ushers constantly polices the grounds and picks up trash. The floors are regularly mopped and literally shine all day long. Little things like that enhance the pleasure one experiences at AZP.
Even without coming close to seeing everything that AZP has to offer, I came away more than impressed by what I did see. No wonder Baseball America is so effusive in its praise for the stadium. To find a better baseball home, you have to look to the Major Leagues, and not many there compare favorably. This is a must visit gem of a ballpark. It's simply a remarkable place to take in the national pastime.
If you live in Memphis and you want to see a little baseball go to AutoZone park to see a Redbirds game. Take your family on a firework night. Tickets are little pricey but it is worth it. The food is as good as baseball food can get.
450 Mulberry St
Memphis, TN 38103
185 Union Ave
Memphis, TN 38103
1180 Union Ave
Memphis, TN 38104